Let Me Down Easy
Some have seen Smith in feature films while others know recall her regular presence on television’s The West Wing. During the 1990s, she brought two stellar shows to Long Wharf: Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.
She began the process which culminated with Let Me Down Easy by coming to Yale University School of Medicine about a decade ago and thereafter interviewed many patients and physicians. In her notes, Smith says, I became fascinated with the frailty and resilience of the human body.” The initial Yale experience was catalytic. She sought prizefighters, fashion models, bicyclists, and rodeo stars. She went to South Africa (Uganda and Rwanda). She visited those suffering from cancer.
The resulting theater creation is long (more than two and one half hours) and quite stunning. David Rockwell, the designer, has created a thrust stage which allows patrons fully on three sides to witness Smith in action. The backdrop, through imagery (courtesy of Jan Hartley) and prop shifts from one short scene to the next. In order to provide clarity, the specific portrayal shifts are highlighted by a written projection above the performance space. The quality of this show, then, is topflight. Stephen Wadsworth’s detailed direction is a must.
Anna Deavere Smith, throughout her performance, is disciplined and spontaneous. The first hour is engaging, spirited, occasionally comedic, and informative. We meet, upon three occasions, Sally Jenkins, Washington Post sports writer. The columnist references Marion Jones, Roger Clemens and performance enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong makes a couple of appearances.
Smith is at her best with the playwright Eve Ensler. The actress, taking on Ensler’s physically demonstrative style, converses with the audience as Eve runs a riff about “living in her vagina” (a Tina Turner highlight is most appropriate).
The second portion of the evening begins with Smith, as herself, yielding to the human rights activist, Samantha Power. The allusion to The Eye of the Storm a brilliant documentary film about racial prejudice (which child is superior – the one with blue or brown eyes?) is discussed. Later, Smith moves along to more unsettling scenes.
She visits some who will soon leave this world, such as Ann Richards, the former Texas governor, and film critic Joel Siegel. Richards is witty and philosophical while Siegel is filled with rage. Dr. Asghar Rastegar, of Yale-New Haven Hospital, speaks of mortality.
Let Me Down Easy is anything but easy. It’s difficult to absorb all that Smith offers; and she has evidently accumulated ten times more than she sculpts for the play. Since she lost her mother five years ago and others close to her, Smith has acutely contemplated the aging process.
What distinguishes her current work is her enviable talent for stepping in and out of characters. That ability surely is part gift; yet significant attention and work enables the actress to fully actualize each one of these individuals. She has studied their voices and expressive techniques. Wisely, Smith retains her own individuality while embodying others. If she did not, Let Me Down Easy would seem artificial. The opposite is true: the play is most authentic.
Some might desire that Smith had shorten the play. I actually glanced at my watch once or twice. When the actress had finished her final turn, I realized that I might very well have been wishing for Let Me Down Easy to continue. Emerging from introspective study, this production is fully affecting, revealing, and pervasive.
Let Me Down Easycontinues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through February 3rd. For ticket and schedule information, visit www.longwharf.org or call (203) 787-4282.
- Fred Sokol